By Shawn Ryan / Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn./TNS
WHEN you’re making a wooden replica of Noah’s Ark that’s about 4-feet long, 4-1/2 feet tall and 2 feet wide, the job probably requires the patience of Job.
And when you’re dealing with circular saws, table saws and other crazy-sharp tools, rushing through the work is inadvisable.
So, Pam Lewis took her time after a friend asked in July if she would build the Ark as a hands-on visual aid for teaching Bible stories. Having previously created wooden figures and sets for the friend on such Bible stories as Jonah and the Whale, a Nativity scene and the Sermon on the Mount, Lewis said, “Sure.”
Then she had to figure out how to live up to her promise—a commitment that just kept growing.
“It’s a huge project,” she said, the tone of her voice a clear indication of just how much more complicated it was than she initially believed. And “huge” is accurate for both the complexity and the size; at 5 foot 1, Lewis can almost curl up in the Ark’s interior. But her friend, Kay Sutherland, knew the project would be big when she first brought up the idea.
“She said, ‘You know that’s going to be huge.’ I said, ‘I know, but that’s the point,’” said Sutherland, who teaches kindergarten through second grade at Gentry Ozark Adventist School in Northwest Arkansas.
About four months after Sutherland’s request, Lewis is near to finishing. She hoped to take it to Arkansas before Thanksgiving but, since the construction proved more involved than she expected, she’s now hoping to get it out there over Christmas break.
The Ark “is just way more” than the other Bible-story projects, said Lewis, who has a degree in commercial art and lives in Apison. Although Lewis has come up with the designs for the other Bible figures on her own, she found detailed instructions for building the Ark, then added elements from her imagination. Helped by woodworker Julian Oliver in his basement shop on East Brainerd Road, the 57-year-old Lewis also created 30 pairs of animals and seven pairs of birds because, after all, the Ark’s not the Ark without animals. There also are eight human-esque figures representing Noah and his family. But there was an added concern. While building the Ark, Lewis also had to make sure it would be safe enough for children to touch without getting splinters, cut on sharp edges or breaking any of the pieces.
“You want to make it so the kids can play with it and don’t worry about them being careful,” she said.
Oliver, who’s been woodworking for about 40 years, agrees the Ark itself is a massive project, especially for someone like Lewis, who hasn’t spent a lifetime cutting, planing, sanding and grinding.
“It’s extremely hard, even for someone like me. There are a lot of angles, a lot of curves; it’s challenging,” Oliver said. When Lewis comes in to his shop to work, however, she just buckles down and tackles it on her own, he said.
“She’s done it all herself except when she runs into problems she can’t figure out on her own,” he said. “She’ll ask, ‘Am I doing this right?'”
Most of the Ark is made from maple with interior elements – decks, beams, etcetera – created out of walnut and cherry to give some color contrast, Lewis said.
The animals are made from exotic woods found all over the world, she said, including olivewood, lacewood, black palm, purpleheart, leopardwood and canarywood.
She and Sutherland met in grade school in Keane, Texas, and even then Lewis loved making things.
“Pam has always been real artsy-craftsy,” Sutherland said. Lewis also goes the extra mile when making her Bible-oriented art, Sutherland said. Roman soldiers have helmets and shields; Egyptian pharaohs have headdresses; there are city gates and city walls as backdrops. Using the figures while she’s teaching Bible students helps capture the attention of her young students, Sutherland says. And, after the lesson is over, the students can use the figures to further cement the stories in their memories, she adds. The figures are so entrancing, older students like them, too, she says. Fifth- and sixth-graders will listen to a Bible story, then use Lewis’ figures to tell the stories to “the little kids, which is kind of cool,” she says. Lewis also teaches woodworking classes three days a week at Garden Plaza of Greenbrier Cove assisted living facility in Ooltewah. Although she praises the facility, where her father lives after moving to Chattanooga from Texas, she says some elderly folks feel as if their life is effectively over, and she wants to convince them otherwise. So she took a circular saw to the facility “to see if they could do it, and it just blossomed,” she says. “It’s unreal how well they could do and the dignity it gave back to them and quality of life.”